Imagine if SeaWorld were to succumb to public pressure and release all its dolphins into the ocean. Wouldn’t that be amazing?
While there are many people who look forward to that day, the reality is it’s still a long way off. There are several issues to consider, notwithstanding the huge cost and logistics of coordinating such a massive operation. It certainly won’t happen overnight.
SeaWorld profits are sliding but the corporation will continue to argue its case for keeping dolphins in captivity, promoting the supposed conservation and educational benefits of exhibiting captive dolphins to the general public. With the continuing groundswell of support against SeaWorld, shouldn’t they at least be drafting a Plan B?
Releasing the dolphins back to the wild may appear the most obvious solution, but there are inherent difficulties in taking this approach. Having been programmed to perform tricks for a daily feed, most of the dolphins wouldn’t know how to fend for themselves in the wild. In captivity, dolphins spend most of their life swimming in circles in a chlorinated pool with little or no stimulation to challenge their powerful, intuitive brains. It is likely they would lack the stamina and coping skills to automatically resume the life they led pre-captivity. Dolphins who have been born into a life of captivity have never had the chance to experience life in their natural homes, or develop the necessary skills to survive without human support.
An alternative solution is re-homing dolphins to sea pens. These environments recreate dolphins’ natural habitat, allowing them to connect with the wonders of sea life on a smaller, more manageable scale. Seaside pens have the potential to reignite dolphins’ sense of wonder and joy at being back in the ocean, swimming freely in salty water and playing with family and friends. Those dolphins that have not spent long periods in captivity may eventually be released back into larger sea sanctuaries, where they can be monitored unobtrusively, or even released back into the wider ocean. However there are many who would not be able to fend for themselves. For those dolphins that require human help, they could at least live out their lives in peace in a sea pen, and experience the natural ebb and flow of the tide.
Of course, the gradual rehabilitation of dolphins from their captive homes to sanctuaries will require extensive planning and consideration. Dolphins cannot be moved from a chlorinated pool straight into saltwater. They will need to be taught how to catch live fish and learn to live independently without regular human stimulation. Further logistical issues include choosing locations for the sanctuaries, obtaining permits to build them, working out the optimum size that will give the dolphins the space they need to live, and determining who will manage and pay for the day-to-day running of the sanctuary.
Despite these challenges, seaside sanctuaries are the most humane and practical alternative to the current marine park model. Although they provide a viable solution to captivity, unfortunately the industry is yet to build any.
Dolphin expert, neuroscientist and animal behaviour researcher Lori Marino has described the current lack of seaside sanctuaries for dolphins as worse than ‘deplorable’. “Those of us who advocate for dolphin and whale freedom must be ready to offer a legitimate concrete solution,” Marino argues. “While signs of movement and change are encouraging, we need to add the missing component to our efforts: the funding and building of legitimate sanctuaries for dolphins and whales.”
In taking a pragmatic approach, Lori Marino raises a very valid point. Effectively realising the situation where captive dolphins are retired to ocean pens will come at a price. The question is, who is going to pay for it?
SeaWorld will only be interested in implementing the plan if it is financially beneficial. The good news is, a sea sanctuary that is managed and maintained to a high standard with the well-being of dolphins at the centre of its operations is a financially feasible solution. Not only will members of the public still want to attend such facilities, it is reasonable to assume environmental organisations and socially conscious businesses will be prepared to invest in them.
Sanctuaries have the potential to generate an income not only from the paying public, but through marketing opportunities and sponsorship deals.
Earlier this year, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland announced plans to retire 8 of its bottlenose dolphins to a seaside sanctuary – the first for dolphins in the United States. While no further details have been released, the idea has been met with enthusiasm from conservationists and the public. A workshop was held soon after the announcement, to work out where to develop an off-site sanctuary, what the best environment would be, the level of husbandry the dolphins will need, and what corporate partners might exist.
There is a long way to go before all aquariums make the decision to retire their dolphins to sea pens, however the Baltimore National Aquarium has certainly taken an encouraging step in the right direction.
So while it would be a wonderful thing for SeaWorld’s dolphins to be released to the wild, it is important to be realistic about exactly where they would be released to. There must be a viable plan to turn to, once the “Empty the Tanks” call has been heard. Retiring performing dolphins to sea pens allows them to live the rest of their lives with the dignity and freedom that these wondrous animals deserve. For now, our focus should be on raising the necessary funds to build these much-needed sanctuaries.
- By Ruth Barnard for Australia for Dolphins
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